- Phil Rogers
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CHICAGO -- Carlos Zambrano is growing up. So is the team that surrounds him, although at times both still have their bad days.
On Saturday in Los Angeles, Zambrano viciously attacked a pair of watercoolers for the crime of being within his line of vision. It was a classic battle of man versus inanimate object. It was also, in a way, a sign of progress. A little more than a year ago, the Chicago Cubs' emotional ace had blown off a similar amount of steam by punching his catcher.
When Zambrano fought with Michael Barrett in the Wrigley Field dugout, it marked the low point in the growing pains that followed Lou Piniella to Chicago. Before that week was out, Barrett had been traded to San Diego, Piniella had kicked dirt all over umpire Mark Wegner and the Cubs had turned a corner in giving themselves a realistic chance to get to the World Series.
"We started switching over right about now last year,'' Piniella said. "Making some changes.''
On June 2, 2007, the Cubs were 22-31 and Piniella was wondering what he had gotten himself into. They've gone 103-70 since then, recovering from an 8½-game deficit to win a National League Central title and starting this season 40-24, the best mark in the majors.
For a team that hasn't won a World Series in 100 years, the same length of time since it last played postseason baseball in back-to-back seasons, the Cubs have become sold on their chance to overcome the franchise's sad history.
Third baseman Aramis Ramirez was asked by the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan if the Cubs are the team to beat.
"Yeah, we are right now,'' Ramirez said. "But last year at this time, Milwaukee was the same way and they didn't make the playoffs. So you can't take anything for granted.''
Ramirez was with the Cubs when Florida recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win the National League Championship Series in 2003. Ditto closer Kerry Wood, who back then was in the role of ace.
They've developed a thorough appreciation of their team's history of non carpe diem. Most of their teammates experienced it for the first time when Arizona swept the Cubs in the first round of last year's playoffs.
Yes, the Cubs are on pace to win 101 games, and have played .595 baseball for more than a year. They've had a better winning percentage than this only once since winning the 1945 pennant. That was by the magical '84 team, which like the one in '03 lost three chances to clinch a pennant in the NLCS. But the only thing you celebrate in June is Father's Day.
That's why Cubs general manager Jim Hendry has his scouts searching for an impact player he can add in a midseason trade.
Piniella has talked about wanting another left-handed bat to balance his collection of right-handed run producers: Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, Ramirez, rookie catcher Geovany Soto and Mark DeRosa. But low-risk addition Jim Edmonds is showing a pulse (10-for-25, one homer, seven RBIs in his past eight games) and Kosuke Fukudome is starting to drive the ball.
Don't be surprised if the Cubs stick with the hitters they have, opting instead to load up a truck with top-tier prospects to go get the best starting pitcher on the market. The thought of C.C. Sabathia following Zambrano in a postseason rotation is almost too much for a fan to process, assuming that Gary Hughes, Ken Kravec and the Cubs' highly respected stable of scouts agree that his 4.81 ERA is a red herring.
"We're thinner than people think we are,'' Piniella said last week, speaking of his starting rotation.
Maybe so. But here are five reasons why Piniella is going to have a hard time getting sympathy, especially from any of his rivals in the NL Central:
1. Zambrano is a monster
At 27 and in his eighth season, Zambrano might have the best combination of experience and tools in the major leagues. He hasn't always put it to good use, in part because of his explosive temperament, but he is off to his most consistent start, going 8-2 with a 3.01 ERA and 92 1/3 innings in 14 starts.
Zambrano has worried less about strikeouts this season, dramatically reducing his walks in the process, but came unraveled when the Los Angeles Dodgers' slap-hitting approach produced 13 hits in 6 2/3 innings against him on Saturday.
Teammates considered him overdue for a meltdown.
Earlier this season, Lee had talked about Zambrano's increased maturity. "I think it helps,'' Lee said. "It seems like sometimes [in the past] he'd be pitching a great game and his emotions would get the best of him and he'd have that one bad inning. But he seems to have gotten away from that. He picks us up when we make errors or have mental lapses in the field. He just comes right back and makes his pitches. I think that's just a sign of maturity and getting more experience under his belt.''
Zambrano competes as well as any pitcher in the majors. Witness his .364 batting average, which includes a four-hit game and a sacrifice bunt he turned into a single by flying down the baseline.
2. Carlos Marmol might be the most valuable reliever in the NL
A converted catcher, the 25-year-old Marmol is a future closer in a set-up role, similar to how the Yankees once used Mariano Rivera and the Angels used Francisco Rodriguez. His promotion from Triple-A in May 2007 was probably as important as any of the chances that Piniella took as he got to know the team he had inherited from Dusty Baker.
Marmol's fastball-slider combination can be overwhelming. He held batters to a .169 average last season and has cut that to .134 over his 33 appearances this season. He's on pace to work 84 games, which is too many, but Marmol insists there is no reason for Piniella to cut his workload.
"I feel good, and I want to be there,'' he said last week. "I'm fine. That's what I'm here for -- to pitch.''
3. Soto is making a strong case for rookie of the year
Piniella used six different catchers in 2007. Barrett, Henry Blanco, Koyie Hill, Rob Bowen and Jason Kendall all took turns behind the plate before the Cubs took a late-season look at the 25-year-old Soto, who had just won MVP honors in the Pacific Coast League.
The Zambrano-Barrett confrontation in May 2007 seemingly convinced Hendry that Barrett's bat wasn't enough to offset the frequent complaints about the catcher's receiving skills and pitch calling. Kendall, acquired from Oakland in July, provided a significant upgrade, but Piniella was so impressed with Soto that he started him over Kendall in the must-win NLDS Game 3 against Arizona.
Soto has been rock-solid behind the plate while hitting .278 with 10 homers and 39 RBIs. He's batted fifth in the order at times, but he's impressed Piniella as much with his handling of pitchers as his hitting.
"He's not shy about going out there and talking to a pitcher, whether or not it's a young pitcher,'' Piniella said. "That's good to see. You can see the guys respect him because they listen.''
4. Fukudome has fit right in
Forget a learning curve. Fukudome has given the Cubs the best all-around play they've had in right field since 2001, when Don Baylor had briefly convinced Sammy Sosa to use his ability to be a complete player, or maybe even back when Andre Dawson was in his prime.
Fukudome is hitting .292 with only four home runs, but he's made major contributions defensively in right field and at the plate. Along with shortstop Ryan Theriot, Fukudome has helped change the Cubs from a free-swinging team to one that works counts and takes walks.
The Cubs' majors-leading .361 on-base percentage is 28 points higher than a year ago and 42 points higher than in 2006, when they were last in the National League. Piniella wouldn't mind a little more power from Fukudome, but is very happy with his addition.
5. Ryan Dempster has gone from erratic closer to No. 2 starter
Ted Lilly followed Zambrano in the rotation during 2007 and at the start of '08, but Dempster would probably follow Zambrano now if Piniella were setting up his rotation for a big series.
Piniella might be kicking himself for not switching Dempster into the rotation last season, when the idea was first explored. But having him spend the winter and all spring training preparing to start hasn't turned out bad, either. He'll take a 7-2 record and 2.90 ERA into a Wednesday night start against Atlanta.
Dempster, who signed with the Cubs while he was recovering from Tommy John surgery that ended a two-season stay in Cincinnati, spent three seasons as a closer but is showing why he was once one of the NL's most promising starters. He has four pitches (two more than most closers need) and knows how to use them. He's only 31, which means he could be widely pursued on the free-agent market next winter, but for now he and his teammates have a clearly defined assignment.
They have a chance to write history.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has its Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available in bookstores, through Amazon.com and by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).
1dInterview by Buster Olney
1dDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com